3. Seeing and Hearing
Pericope preaching always contains the peril of missing the larger point. We get the two smaller seed parables in the second half of Mark 4. Each of them has more than enough fodder to feed a sermon every three years. But the seed parables are not stand-alone units. Nor is it enough, even, to put them together in some sort of additive analogy. They are part of a larger discourse that moves the plot of Mark along.
Mark 4:1-34 is clearly intended to be viewed as a unit. Verses 2 and 34 serve as the bookends for this set of parables and explanations. In that light, we need to pay some attention to the whole chapter in order to understand the appointed Gospel reading. That would be all well and good if the whole unit were about seeds and soil, planting and harvesting, growth and grace. But it’s not. Right in the middle of all the agricultural imagery is the imagery of the unhidden lamp (Mark 4:21-25). Unless Jesus is talking about some sort of first-century growth light, the connection is not obvious to us.
The writer of Mark’s gospel is fond, as we have noted of structural sandwiches. On closer examination, these sandwiches are often chiasms, a central point or story surrounded by concentric circles of related images, illustrations, and parables. That appears to be the structure of Mark 4 as it was the main structure of Mark 3 (keeping in mind that the chapter and verse divisions are later features of the text, added by scribes in succeeding centuries). The question in a chiasm is, where is the center?
Scholars propose a variety of chiastic arrangements for the text, each with its own virtues. The one I find most convincing puts the “Unhidden Lamp” section of verses 21-25 at the center of the discourse. This means that our text for the day in verses 26-34 is intended to illustrate, expand, and comment on those verses. That’s why it’s worth spending some time figuring out what those verses mean in order to fully and fairly exegete our assigned text.
“He said to them, ‘Is a lamp brought in to be put under the bushel basket, or under the bed, and not on the lampstand? For there is nothing hidden, except to be disclosed; nor is anything secret, except to come to light. Let anyone with ears to hear listen!’” (Mark 4:21-23, NRSV). In a gospel famous for keeping secrets, Jesus declares that the purpose is to reveal everything. Nothing that is “encrypted” that shall not be made apparent. Nothing that is a secret shall remain so.
Jesus comes to reveal the mysteries of the Kingdom of God. The seed may be planted and grow in the secrecy of underground life. But it will come out of the ground and become visible. Not only will it manifest itself, but it will be a riotous growth and magnificent harvest. The light coming into the world will not be under an opaque shade. It will be uncovered for all to see. Jesus is revealing that mystery to the disciples so that they can share the light with others.
That inside information comes by seeing and hearing. Pay attention to that throughout Mark’s gospel. It’s no accident that a number of Jesus’ miracles in Mark have to do with healing the blind and deaf.
“If anyone has ears to hear, let them hear,” Jesus promises in verse 23. He expands on that in verse 24. He said to them, “See what you hear!” That’s the literal translation of three Greek words. The sentence has the sense of “Pay attention to what you are hearing!” Stop, look, and listen closely. That close attention is paid off by deeper understanding, “the measure you give will be the measure you get, and still more will be given you. For to those who have, more will be given; and from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.’” (Mark 4:24-25).
Klyne Snodgrass describes “A Hermeneutics of Hearing Informed by the Parables with Special Reference to Mark 4” (what did I do before Google Scholar, Academia, and JSTOR?). “Jesus’ parables were intended to enable hearing and elicit a response,” he writes. “They assume a hermeneutics of hearing, one that calls for depth listening and includes a hermeneutic of obedience,” he continues. Snodgrass notes that the Greek word for hearing includes “a range of at least eight nuances…: literally to hear a sound; to understand a language; to understand in the sense of grasping meaning or significance; to recognize; to discern; to pay attention; to agree with, accept, or believe what is said; and to obey.”
Snodgrass suggests that God seeks a hearing for the mystery of the gospel that “hears correctly, discerns, affirms, and responds with obedience to what God speaks.” Mark uses the verb for “to hear” 13 times in Mark 4:1-34. In Mark’s gospel, Jesus uses the parable to assist people to come to that sort of hearing. Snodgrass points us to verses 33-34, where the narrator says that Jesus spoke “the word” to the people in parables “just as they were able to hear.” “The parables were intended to meet people at their level,” Snodgrass writes, “and draw them to the deeper message.”
This is the weight of verses 21-25 as well. These verses “must be understood as commentary on the teaching of the parables,” he argues. “The statement that a light is not to be hidden but is to enlighten and the parallel statements that nothing is hidden except that it should be revealed refer to the parables,” he proposes. “Nothing is hidden in parables but that it should be made clear. This is the nature of parables,” he concludes, “they hide in order to reveal…”
For Jesus in Mark’s gospel, however, there is hearing, and then there is hearing. There is seeing, and then there is seeing. Pay attention to what you are hearing. There is more than meets the ear here. What you put into the dialogue is what you will get out of it, Jesus says in verse 24. “The way people respond to the parables,” Snodgrass writes, “determines whether additional revelation is given. Those who respond with real hearing receive added revelation,” he continues. “For those who respond with superficial hearing,” he argues, “even what they have heard is of no effect.”
I’m going to take the opportunity to go on a bit of a rant at this point. I have lost count of the number of times I’ve heard from parishioners (my own and others) something like, “I just don’t get anything out of” a sermon, a worship service, a class, or a congregation. “I have to go somewhere else where I can be fed,” is the conclusion to that story. For some years I responded by trying to do more, do better, improve technique and content in order to provide a better product. None of that was wasted effort for my pastoral improvement, but it never kept one dissatisfied customer from looking elsewhere.
What I learned through repeated failure and subsequent reflection was that at least half of the issue was in the hearing rather than in the speaking. Some got nothing out of the content because they simply weren’t listening. Balancing the checkbook and catching up on email are not behaviors that facilitate good comprehension. Some got nothing out of the content because they weren’t prepared to receive the transmission. Biblical and theological illiteracy are tremendous roadblocks to growth in faith, hope, and love.
Some got nothing out of the content because they didn’t like me or the congregation or the denomination. The subtext of their lives drove the listening far more than the text of the moment. Some, in fairness, were traumatized by life in and out of the church – and it’s a wonder they even showed up. And then there were some who simply disagreed with what they heard. They knew the “right” answer, and they weren’t getting it from me. So hearing was not really an option.
If you were listening, you would notice that I just told my own version of the Parable of the Sower in Mark 4:1-9. That parable is followed by a quotation from Isaiah 6 that mourns the hardness of heart of those who look but do not perceive, those who listen but do not understand. Isaiah’s explanation of this perceptual failure is that they are not willing to repent – to turn toward a new perspective, a new way of seeing and hearing, a new way of thinking.
The Sower sows the Word. The Word brings a whole new universe of meaning – the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. This is the mystery of the kingdom, and that mystery will turn everything upside down and inside out (or right-side up and outside in, to use Richard Swanson’s understanding). If we can allow ourselves to be opened to that revolutionary message of newness, we will hear even more. If we harden ourselves into old ways of seeing and hearing, we will remain blind and deaf to the Kingdom.
We will see this process of seeing and hearing work out again and again in Mark’s gospel. And we see it working out again and again in the church. For example, it’s Pride Month. We’ve had a nice proclamation from our ELCA bishop in that regard. That proclamation means squat, however, as long as our welcome of all people is a constitutional option which most of our congregations refuse to exercise.
There’s no point in making declarations when the system is structured to keep eyes and ears closed.
References and Resources
Robert Farrar Capon. Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus. Kindle Edition.
Schellenberg, R. (2009). Kingdom as Contaminant? The Role of Repertoire in the Parables of the Mustard Seed and the Leaven. The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, 71(3), 527-543. Retrieved June 4, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/43709811.
Snodgrass, Klyne. “A Hermeneutic of Hearing Informed by the Parables with Special Reference to Mark 4.” Bulletin for Biblical Research 14.1 (2004) 59-79.
Timothy Wenger. Luther’s Small Catechism.